On the night of 21st October 1904, out in the Dogger Bank area of the North Sea, Russian warships mistook a fleet of British fishing trawlers for enemy Japanese warships and opened fire. One of the fishermen killed that night was George Henry Smith, great-grandfather of Gareth Smith, the lyricist and artist behind Vanishing.
Performed on the 21st and 22nd October 2017 – the 113th anniversary of the disaster – in the dramatic outdoor amphitheatre of Stage@TheDock, Hull, and now given a full release on the 117th anniversary via the Outer Reaches label, ‘55°N, 5°E’ reawakens this history.
Scored for electronics, saxophone, violin and spoken word, three musicians and three dancers shift through five movements in a cycle. The music is part Throbbing Gristle soundscape, part Vaughan Williams folksong, part John Cale drone. Febrile noise, enveloping sub-bass, fusillading drum machines, resplendent strings, and expressive intonations surge and subside, capturing the brutality and havoc of the Dogger Bank incident, and the untold loss endured.
Moving between fervour and restraint, Smith communicates his story, a fragmentary narrative; an account of catastrophe and aftermath; of voids carved into a community in which family members and strong presences have been erased. Haunting traces imprinted in the collective memory; only murals, statues and memorials remain. Trauma and absence echoing down paternal lines.
With ‘55°N, 5°E’ these absences are evoked, given tribute. Phantom trawlers return; voices re-animate. Elegiac passages ascend, then collapse into the depths, memories and fragments now reaching outwards, now receding on turbulent tides.
In mirroring the sounds invoked, the three dancers reflect a fateful passage. In many ways, their movements transcend dance; instead representing a mercurial series of subtle instructions sent from an invisible source. Frozen hands weave messages with long pieces of rope. Their shadows flee backwards into the water.
In tracing this story Smith and his collaborators delineate a history of England, of the North, of an industrial past that still reverberates today. Although Smith’s profound connection to these events make this a record with an intimately personal scope, ‘55°N, 5°E’ possesses a hard-won poetic power that feels broadly significant, even vital. The events of over a hundred years ago are given vivid hues and interpreted with astonishing weight and clarity. Time becomes subservient to vision.
Perhaps a theory posited by Guglielmo Marconi bears relevance here; a belief that suggests no sound ever dies, but echoes on forever, beyond human hearing, in eternal frequencies, retrievable. With ‘55°N, 5°E’ the lost is momentarily regained, in a performance where, just for a moment, above a defunct harbour, the angles aligned through music, dance and sculpture; a divining rod, to call out to his father. To his father’s father. To retrieve from cold sodden air, across time, the living and the breathing once more.
‘55°N, 5°E’ will be released digitally and as a limited-edition vinyl on 21st October 2021, commemorating the 117th anniversary of the Dogger Bank incident. The vinyl edition includes a special insert compiled and designed by Gareth Smith as well as a download of the full performance filmed live at Stage@the Dock, Hull in 2017.